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To provide information about available agents for chemical pleurodesis.A MEDLINE search (1966 to October 1992) was conducted using the terms malignant pleural effusion and pleurodesis.All articles containing references to patients with recurrent, symptomatic, malignant pleural effusions treated with chemical pleurodesis were selected and reviewed for pleurodesis regimen, number of patients treated, success rate (complete response), and adverse effects. The agents studied included doxycycline, minocycline, tetracycline, bleomycin, cisplatin, doxorubicin, etoposide, fluorouracil, interferon-beta, mitomycin-c, Corynebacterium parvum, methylprednisolone, and talc.Independent extraction by three observers.Studies including a total of 1168 patients with malignant pleural effusions were reviewed for efficacy of the pleurodesis agent and studies including 1140 patients were reviewed for toxicity. Chemical pleurodesis produced a complete response in 752 (64%) of 1168 patients. The success rate of the pleurodesis agents varied from 0% with etoposide to 93% with talc. Corynebacterium parvum, the tetracyclines, and bleomycin had success rates of 76%, 67%, and 54%, respectively. The most commonly reported adverse effects were pain (265 of 1140, 23%) and fever (220 of 1140, 19%).Doxycycline and minocycline, with success rates of 72% and 86%, respectively, appear to be effective tetracycline-replacement agents in the few patients studied. Talc appears to be the most effective and least expensive agent; however, insufflation has the disadvantages of the expense of thoracoscopy and the usual need for general anesthesia. Bleomycin appears to be less effective than talc and the tetracyclines and is substantially more expensive.